21st Century Love for Donizetti’s “Elixir”

Note from William: In celebration of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the San Diego Opera, I will be re-printing program notes that the opera company commissioned me to write. The third of these, re-printed with the kind permission of the copyright holder, the San Diego Opera, will be the program notes for the February 2014 performances of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love).”

The world has changed profoundly over the 182 years since the premiere of Donizetti’s Elixir of Love (L’Elisir d’Amore) at Milan’s Canobbiana Opera House. The performance that a Milanese audience would have experienced during the opera’s premiere season would have been very different from what will take place in San Diego in 2014.

They would be astonished at how different modern day opera performances are from those to which they were accustomed, and how differently the audiences behave. Similarly, how operas are cast, staged, conducted and performed has also undergone dramatic changes.

[Below: Giuseppe Frezzolini, the original Doctor Dulcamara in the character’s costume; resized image of an historical lithograph.]


Audience Behavior

In San Diego, when an opera is about to begin, the house lights dim, and the theater becomes dark. The audience is expected to be quiet and to refrain from any activity (i.e., texting, using cellphones) that might distract from other patrons’ enjoyment of the performance.

It wasn’t until 40 years after The Elixir of Love premiere that Richard Wagner, at his Bayreuth opera house, turned out the auditorium lights to focus the audience’s attention on what happens onstage. A darkened theater encourages cessation of conversations, though some Italians of 1832 might worry how one could see other people and be seen.

In early 19th century Milan, the La Scala opera house was a center for entertainment of the aristocracy and upper class. A gambling casino operated in the foyer. (Several directors of major Italian opera houses negotiated a share of their casino’s profits.) The house had 3000 seats, all distributed in tiers of 683 boxes in which Milan’s elite, who might hold dinner parties in their boxes, prepared by their cooks in the back of the box.

Business transactions, games of chance, flirtations and other distractions were occurring simultaneously in the boxes and on the main orchestra floor, which had no audience seats. Oil-burning lamps shone constantly, so that patrons could mingle and socialize during the performances.

French composer Hector Berlioz was in Milan and attended a performance during the Elixir premiere season. He soon left the opera house because he couldn’t hear the singing over the loud talking.

[Below: Composer Hector Berlioz in 1832, who abandoned a performance of “L’Elisir d’Amore” because of loud talking in the opera house’s main floor and dinners and gaming in the boxes; resized image, based on an Emile Signol painting.]


Casting the Opera

The Elixir of Love is based on a libretto that the poet Felice Romani adapted and enhanced from an earlier French comic opera (by Auber). The San Diego Opera cast its four main characters (Adina, a soprano; Nemorino, a tenor; Belcore, a baritone; and Doctor Dulcamara, a bass-baritone) from an international pool of artists. Each artist has mastered the vocal techniques needed to sing their role. The artists have been chosen for their ability to act and for their comic timing.

Donizetti did not have the luxury of choosing artists who he believed would be right for his comic opera. Under the rigid practices observed by Italian opera houses, a small handful of artists would be engaged for an opera company’s season. Those artists would be selected for that year’s major new dramatic work.

In 1832, each opera house hired principal male and female singers who were vocal virtuosos. The prima donna assoluta held “superstar” status, and demanded the privilege of changing any composer’s arias, introducing music by another composer – and, upon occasion, even substituting an entire act by another composer. The Italian tenor of the early 19th century was trained in a florid style of singing, quite unlike the heroic chest tones and ringing high C’s that Donizetti championed and that we now associate with the Italian lyric tenor.

[Below: the original Teatro della Cannobiana “L’Elisir d’Amore” drop-cloth sets representing the interior of Adina’s house; resized image of an historical lithograph.]


It mattered not to the opera company’s management that Donizetti was unimpressed by the tenor – who was entrusted with what 18 decades later is Donizetti’s most famous tenor aria, Una furtiva lagrima. The present day tenor voices that sing the role are expected to have muscular chest tones, with strength in the higher part of their range. Although not the prevailing tenor sound in the early 1830s in Italy, Donizetti’s music fits brilliantly with and did much to advance the cause of the new style of Italian tenor.

Conductor and Orchestra

It was the custom in Italian opera houses in 1832 for the composer of a new opera to be its conductor for the first three performances. If an opera survived to a fourth performance, the house conductor, who was typically one of the orchestra’s violinists or cellists would conduct the opera thereafter. (Elixir was a hit, achieving 30 performances.) This practice eventually gave way to the professional conductor, who in modern times is expected to be intimately knowledgeable about the score.

The orchestra of 1832 might have included some instrumental virtuosi, but the size, quality and sound of the orchestra would have been quite different from what we now expect. Many of the modern orchestral instruments – the bass viol, the trumpet, the bassoon and the French horn are examples of instruments benefited by improvements in their manufacturing technology – have a much more brilliant sound than the instruments for which Donizetti wrote.

[Below: Composer Gaetano Donizetti; resized image of an historical lithograph.]


The sound of the 1832 orchestra with all instruments together would likely seem strange to the modern ear, because over the decades the ratio of numbers of instruments to each other – such as cellos, whose proportion of the string section has decreased while violins have increased – have rebalanced to achieve today’s symphonic harmonies. Additionally, the pitch to which the orchestra was tuned varied from house to house.

Staging the Opera

The visual experience has changed as well. Today, advances in lighting technology, with electronic and digital equipment used instead of the oil lamps of the 1830s has provided the opera house with the ability to control how brightly each object and person onstage is lit.

Better lighting requires better sets. Formerly, painted drop-cloths were created by each opera house and likely used for multiple productions. Today many of the world’s best theatrical talents are enlisted in creating opera productions. Better staging encourages better acting.

Certainly, in the United States opera houses, the singers are expected to be effective actors. Significant time is provided for rehearsals to develop a cohesive production – well sung, well staged, well lit, well acted. The old stereotype of operatic acting – standing at a three quarters posture, pointing one’s toes, and singing while raising one’s hand for no dramatic purpose – the style in 1832 and for a long time afterwards – would not be acceptable in a modern performance of Elixir.

The production to be seen in San Diego staged by British Director Stephen Lawless with sets by South African Designer Johan Engels, was originally created for the opera companies of Los Angeles and Geneva, Switzerland.

Lawless’ staging has delighted audiences on two continents, reflecting the humanity and sentimentality of Donizetti’s brilliantly conceived characters, while presenting the endearing story with the dramatic and theatrical values that 21st century audiences expect. The San Diego Opera audience is seeing a better vocal, orchestral and dramatic performance of Elixir of Love than the Milanese audience who first saw it in 1832.

For the previous program notes in this series, see: Sweet Melody: Gounod’s “Faust”, “Romeo and Juliet” and the Théâtre Lyriqueand also,

Faust Damned and Marguerite Saved: Changing Faust’s Fate in Parisand also,

From the “Barber of Seville” to “Don Pasquale”  and also,

Gaetano Donizetti: European Romanticism and The Pathway to Verdi.